Lobbying versus protest
Despite the fact that talks between the Quebec government and student leaders resumed on May 28, the escalating protests in the province have sparked a dialogue in other provinces — specifically Ontario — about hiking tuition costs and how students should react to it.
More recently, various students’ unions under the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) have called on the federation and on students in Ontario to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the provincial government.
This has posed the question of whether or not an actual movement, similar to the one in Quebec, could manifest in Ontario.
“I think it’s inspiring to see hundreds and thousands of students to take the street, to see students give up their own academic years and put themselves in academic jeopardy for what is really a struggle that will affect the future of Quebec,” explained Nora Loreto, the communications and government relations co-ordinator at the Ontario CFS office.
“It also shows how we get to that point in Ontario and in all the other provinces,” she continued.
“The students in Quebec have shown that working together and building a movement from the grass roots and being deeply democratic can actually build a movement that can withstand time and that can withstand attacks and can withstand oppressive laws like we saw during the G20.”
Quebec students are facing the dilemma of the provincial government trying to raise their tuition by 76 per cent even though it was promised to them otherwise. The decision by students to boycott their education began on Feb. 13, and as a way to curb the escalating protests, the Charest government implemented the controversial Bill 78 that deemed any protest without the prior approval of the government illegal.
Bill 78 also requires the striking students to share the exact routes of their protest with the police. Any violation can result in hefty fines.
“The pocketbooks aren’t the only thing being threatened, it’s now their rights and freedoms,” said Chris Walker, vice-president of university affairs at the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union. “There’s a lot going on, the scope of it has definitely gotten bigger.”
As a recent example of the movement spilling over the border into Ontario, at their general meeting on May 24, the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) agreed to send $10,000 to students in Quebec that need legal aid because of Bill 78.
“I was asked if I thought these donations would prompt students to protest [in Ontario] and my feeling is unlikely,” explained Judy Bates, the president of WLUFA and a geography professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“Tuition fees have been rising about five per cent each year for the last ten to 15 years, and we have not witnessed significant protests in Ontario regarding those huge fee increases.”
According to Bates, around 50 to 60 WLUFA members were present at that meeting on May 24.
When asked what WLUSU thought about WLUFA’s recent donation, Walker responded by saying, “WLUFA is more than capable to donate to whom it wishes as an organization.
“However, WLUSU will not be making a similar-style donation to the cause.”
A local group from Kitchener is attempting to generate a “casserole” protest on the night of May 30, similar to the one in Quebec last week, in support of the students facing Bill 78. Other movements, though considerably smaller, have begun in other cities such as Vancouver, New York and Paris.
Walker instead said that he hopes a movement like the one in Quebec doesn’t materialize in Ontario, and asserted that other forms of political engagement are more effective. He did note, however, that students in Quebec have the right to be upset.
“Our approach is to work alongside government and very pro-actively engage with them and try to find a cautionary balance to ensure an affordable and high-quality education system,” said Walker.
Alysha Li, the president of the Ontario University Students Alliance (OUSA), the provincial lobby group WLUSU is partnered with, echoed Walker’s statements.
“Absolutely, tuition is such a big topic, for OUSA especially, I know our member organizations, it’s been a concern that’s been brought up from time after time,” Li explained, adding that the existing tuition framework in Ontario is set to expire at the end of the upcoming 2012-13 academic year.
By lobbying and working with the government, OUSA hopes that the consultation and negotiations work in the favour of Ontario students. But Loreto thinks that mere lobbying is not enough.
“I think that students are both concerned and need to be more engaged,” Loreto argued. “Lobbying does have a role, [but] it’s naïve and impossible to win this through lobbying because if we could we would have.”
While some have tried to ignite more activism similar to that of Quebec, most have agreed that the political climate in Quebec is just inherently different to one that exists in Ontario.
“It’s a different political culture in Quebec, and they are much more activist than Ontario tends to be at times. So the political culture is definitely a contributing factor,” said Walker.